Isle Royale National Park is a 210-square-mile island in northwestern Lake Superior, closest to Minnesota and Ontario, with Wisconsin a runner-up, but politically it lands in Michigan, somehow. That would have no effect, really, on my experience, except for the fact that it is therefore also in the Eastern time zone, despite the fact that it is physically located in the central – so I had to quickly acclimate to the sun rising and setting an hour later.
The big stories on the island (or ISRO, its acronym) are the moose and wolves, which separately came over from the mainland during the 20th century (the moose swam; the wolves walked on an ice bridge). It is the wolf population with the longest continuously ongoing study, and close tabs are inevitably kept on the moose population as well. That said, it is pretty rare for anyone to see a wolf out there (as the ranger said in our orientation, there are 19 wolves on 210 acres, so…), and I didn’t set any records in that category during my stay. I did see a couple moose, though… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Isle Royale is also a federally-designated Wilderness Area, so most of the park is accessible only by foot or non-motorized watercraft (the outer harbors and their adjacent campsites welcome motorboats, yachts, etc.). Although it is one of the least-visited of the national parks (due to difficult access – several hours on a ferry), the volume of people hiking through the backcountry can be pretty heavy, so they have established campgrounds throughout the park for overnight stays. Those sites have tent pads, pit toilets, and in some cases fire rings and wooden shelters. My route took me along the central Greenstone Ridge Trail, with visits to various sites on the ridge, next to inland lakes, and at outer harbors. The views, vegetation, and wildlife (not to mention human interaction) varied as I crossed over half the length of the island in the course of a week. There is a great map of the park: here. This… [drumroll please] … is my story:
September 6, 2010
Isle Royale N.P.
My trip started on Labor Day with a two-hour ferry ride from Grand Portage aboard the Voyageur II. It was a somewhat bumpy, but overall pleasant ride, and we passengers chatted among ourselves about our upcoming plans for touring the island. One woman was doing a 9-day solo paddle/portage through the inland lakes. Another was simply taking a two-day ferry trip around the island to view the lighthouses. My plan, to backpack a chunk of the island in a week, seemed about average.
Upon arrival in Windigo, we all got an orientation to the principles of Leave No Trace, then went and got our backcountry permits, and were set free to explore the island. I headed along the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which first led uphill through a pretty boreal forest, and quickly leveled out on the ridge. After a couple miles of that, the ridge became nothing but monotonous maple woods – with the very occasional birch tree, white cedar, or grapevine to break things up. I passed over a dozen people on the ridge before I stopped counting, all heading back out towards Windigo at the end of their trips.
My first night was to be spent at Island Mine campground, up on the ridge in the middle of all those maples (I had been warned of the less-than stellar scenery and limited water supply before heading out). The wind from the days before had not abated, and if anything I could expect it to get stronger, as storthere, near the ridge, and picked my site accordingly. A couple advantages of
the location, however, were that campfires were allowed (prohibited throughout most of the island), and that no one else had elected to spend the night there. So I was all alone with my fire, drinking tea and thinking about the day, when I heard a low grunting noise, accompanied by some thudding.
Minutes before, I had written in my journal that, although boring, the site at least offered peace of mind… after all, what would a moose want with an area with no water or undergrowth? I didn’t need to worry about any animals bothering me in the night – I’d only seen one squirrel and a couple birds since my arrival a few hours earlier. But that clumping and snorting made me perk up my ears, and as it was repeated, the sounds also grew closer. Big sticks were breaking as it walked, and the island really doesn’t have a wide variety of animals… it wasn’t a human, squirrel, fox, or wolf. Must be a moose!
I stood up and made some noise, to let him know I was there (my fire was burning low and it was almost completely dark). He stopped, thought for a bit, and then continued slowly around my campsite, passing within 50 yards of my tent. At one point, I got a great look at his silhouette, despite the deep dusk. It was pretty exciting, but ruined my peace of mind for the evening! If any moose experts out there can solve the mystery of what he was doing in the area, I’d love to know…